The practice of law and the public’s demands for legal services are changing. Driven in part by new technologies, new business models and access to justice concerns, delivery and regulation of legal services has begun evolving around the world. In response, the Law Societies of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have been examining a spectrum of regulatory tools that includes entity regulation, compliance-based regulation and alternative business structures to determine which, if any, might be effective in our jurisdictions. The Prairie Law Societies determined that proactive regulation of law firms in addition to regulation of individual lawyers was appropriate and has been working towards a regulatory framework that incorporates that approach.
In Saskatchewan, The Legal Profession Act, 1990 was amended in 2014 to include firms as members of the Law Society. Under the Act, one of the duties of the Law Society is to protect the public by assuring the integrity, knowledge, skill, proficiency and competence of members. A proactive approach would allow both law firms and the Law Society to be more responsive to a diverse and profoundly changing environment, to enhance the quality of legal services, to encourage ethical legal practice and to foster innovation in legal services.
To determine the most meaningful way to engage with law firms though proactive regulation, the Prairie Law Societies conducted a pilot project in 2017 to test a new resource which helps firms assess the robustness of their practice management systems and firm culture. The Law Firm Practice Management Assessment Tool (the “Assessment Tool”) helps a firm recognize its strengths and provides “things to consider” in areas where opportunities for improvement have been identified. These include examples of how a law firm might put practices, policies or procedures into place, along with links to further resources that law firms can use in addressing practice management concerns.
The Assessment Tool places the focus on the firm because we know that the systems, norms and culture of a firm greatly influence the conduct and overall practice of its lawyers. We also recognize that lawyers are busy people and collecting resources and assessing infrastructure can be time-consuming. By its design, the Assessment Tool is intended not only as an evaluation mechanism, but also as a convenient source of best practice resources for firms. The content of the Assessment Tool is designed to help firms think about ways to best serve their clients, their lawyers and their employees. This fosters both public protection in terms of ethical, efficient practice as well as good business.
The goal of the pilot project was to test the functionality of the Assessment Tool and determine how it could be used in helping firms work with the Law Society to ensure sound practice management systems are in place. Pilot Project participants were identified by randomly selecting firms of various sizes throughout the province, providing a representative sample of Saskatchewan firms. Those firms were then invited to voluntarily participate in the Pilot Project. Ultimately, 22 Saskatchewan firms participated. A similar process was followed in Alberta and Manitoba.
Participating firms were asked to designate a representative to be the point person for the Pilot Project. The designated representative’s task was to ensure the firm undertook the self-assessment, using the Assessment Tool, which references a number of principles relating to practice management and firm culture. The designated representative then reported to the Law Society about things that the firm has been doing well and also identified areas for improvement. The designated representatives were then asked to complete an evaluation of the Assessment Tool and conduct an exit interview about their experience. This feedback has been extremely informative and will be crucial to the determinations the Benchers will make about the ultimate assessment process.
Overall, the feedback about the Assessment Tool was positive, but there are aspects of the Assessment Tool and the overall assessment process that required some fine-tuning following the pilot project. The Prairie Law Societies have been working to develop a regulatory framework and refine the Assessment Tool based on the feedback received from the pilot project participants. We expect to begin rolling out a framework for law firm regulation in early 2019.
The ultimate goal is to foster a more collaborative relationship between the Law Society and its members, including firms, and to help lawyers and firms manage risk so that the likelihood of conduct leading to a complaint or negligence is minimized. As the Law Society moves toward implementing a proactive approach to regulating law firms, it will strive to create an approach that is practical, productive and meaningful for both the Law Society and our members.
Further updates on the project will be posted to this site as they become available.